Newsletter #33: American Guns and American Exceptionalism, with Patrick Blanchfield

By Michal Schatz

A few days after a gunman massacred nineteen children and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas last month, a Sky News reporter interviewed Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz. In a tone of rehearsed sadness, Cruz lamented that there were parents who would never again say good night to their children. He tried to deflect questions about gun reform, but the reporter would not relent. “But why does this only happen in your country? … Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?” Eyes flitting from feigned sorrow to rage, Cruz fell out of character: “You know, I’m sorry you think American exceptionalism is awful. … Why is it that people come from all over the world to America? ‘Cause it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on Earth. And stop being a propagandist.”

Exchanges like this often elicit flaccid accusations of Republican hypocrisy. How can Cruz look at Uvalde and believe the US to be the safest country in the world while refusing to support gun law reform? But as Patrick Blanchfield emphasizes in this week’s Dig episode, multiple things can be true at once, even if they contradict each other. Sitting with and meditating on the layered contradictions embedded in today’s US gun violence and reform discourses can be clarifying. Why, for example, did the reporter’s reference to American exceptionalism, in particular, provoke such a visceral response from a major US senator? Cruz is, of course, bought by multiple gun lobbies. But his reaction — instinctive anger, personal offense — to the suggestion that at least one aspect of “American exceptionalism” is bad is incredibly common across political, class, and even racial lines. Yet the unfettered arms production that has won the US its status as the country with the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world is a crucial part of that exceptionalist legacy’s development, going back to the country’s earliest history.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

The idea of American exceptionalism as American supremacy is so deeply internalized in and constitutive of the American psyche that a driving political logic for both parties can be summed up, as Blanchfield puts it, as “better the end of the world than a diminution of American hegemony.” This ideological commitment is used to justify US violence abroad and thus ensures the perpetuation of gun terror’s reign domestically. If, as Blanchfield suggests, the term gun control is “chronically fucked,” what is the productive path forward? Undoing four hundred years of gun culture will require a complex variety of legislative reforms and institutional abolition. But a positive, anti-imperialist, internationalist program for scaling down the mass production and trade of arms is a necessary prerequisite.

Further Reading You can pre-order Patrick Blanchfield’s forthcoming book Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence here. To read more of his analysis of the death drive, guns, and violence workers check out this article. Patrick is a veteran Dig guest who’s participated in episodes on a range of topics including cancel culture, liberals’ fetishization of cops, and neoliberalism. Check them all out here.

For more on the history of American imperialism and exceptionalism, check out Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth, as well as our interviews with Grandin.